It’s time to speak out about drilling in the arctic refuge

Late last year U.S. Congress passed legislation to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. It was hugely disappointing news. Any industrial development could have devastating impacts on the health of the Porcupine caribou herd, who migrate to the Arctic Refuge every year to calve.

Want to have your voice heard, but don’t know how? This is your chance. A public consultation period is about to open through the United States Department of the Interior. Since this is a transboundary issue both Americans and Canadians can submit comments.

This going to be a rare and powerful opportunity for Yukoners and Canadians to speak directly to the American government. Stay tuned to our websiteFacebook and Twitter, as we’ll be providing a simple way to submit comments as soon as the consultation period begins, which should happen sometime in March.

CPAWS Yukon is stepping up our focus to protect the Porcupine caribou herd. This work is in partnership with American environmental organizations like The Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League, and Gwich’in nations, both in the U.S. and Canada, who have been fighting to keep industry out of the Arctic Refuge for decades.

We spoke to Mike Anderson from The Wilderness Society about the upcoming consultation period, how it will work and why it’s so important for Canadians to participate.

Mike has been with The Wilderness Society since 1985. His main focus is national forest management and policy. He also helps coordinate all of the society’s litigation activities. In his own words: “This will be our first truly “transboundary” case, so we’re thrilled to be working in partnership with CPAWS Yukon to protect the Refuge and the caribou.”

Mike Anderson - The Wilderness Society

CPAWS Yukon: In December, U.S. Congress passed legislation to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. How close are they to actually opening up the refuge?

Mike: The Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior wants to begin selling oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic Refuge as soon as next year. This assumes they will be able to complete all of the necessary environmental analysis and public involvement within approximately one year, which is a much faster timeline than normal.   

CPAWS Yukon: Through a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. government has to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in order to sell leases for oil and gas development. What does this process involve, and what sort of impact could it have on whether or not drilling occurs in the Arctic Refuge?

Mike: The first major step in developing an EIS is called “scoping,” in which the Interior Department requests public comment on the issues that should be addressed in the EIS. The second step is the preparation of a draft EIS, which will analyze the environmental effects of the proposed oil and gas leasing and examine a range of alternatives to the proposal. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the draft EIS. The third and final step will be to modify the draft EIS based on public comments and complete a final EIS and issue a Record of Decision. 

If the Interior Department’s EIS does not complete a legally adequate analysis of environmental effects and alternatives, the drilling program might be delayed through litigation in U.S. courts. For example, a successful lawsuit filed by the government of Manitoba against the U.S. Interior Department over a water development project near its southern border has resulted in a 12-year delay in the project.

CPAWS Yukon: Canadians will have a chance to submit their comments through the scoping period, which is set to open very soon. What exactly is this scoping period, and why is it so important?

Mike: The scoping period allows the public to comment on the issues that the Interior Department should consider in the EIS, such as what impact the oil leasing and drilling would have on the Porcupine caribou, migratory birds, and other wildlife.  The scoping period sets the stage for the remainder of the EIS and decision-making process, indicating what issues are of greatest concern to the public and need to be carefully examined in the EIS.  

CPAWS Yukon: What will the process look like for Canadians to submit their comments?

Mike:  Canadians will be able to send scoping comments to the Interior Department as members of the public, just like people in the United States. Once the scoping process begins, the Department will provide email and mailing addresses to which the public can send their comments. The scoping comment period is likely to last for 60 days.

CPAWS Yukon: This is a transboundary issue. Yukoners and Canadians are incredibly concerned about potential drilling because the Arctic Refuge is where the Porcupine caribou calve every year. Any development in this sensitive ecosystem could have a devastating impact on the health of the herd. Do our voices matter in this consultation process? How can our submissions make a difference?

Mike: The National Environmental Policy Act requires the Interior Department to consider “transboundary effects” that have been identified during the scoping process. The threat that oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge poses to the migratory Porcupine caribou herd in Canada is a perfect example of transboundary effects.

Concerned Canadian citizens and their elected representatives, including First Nations, are best qualified to point out the transboundary effects and insist that they be addressed in the EIS. Scoping comments should also discuss the harmful impacts of oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge to the cultural and economic well-being of the Gwich’in who rely upon the Porcupine caribou. 

CPAWS Yukon:  What happens after the scoping period closes?

Mike: The Interior Department will prepare a draft EIS on the proposed oil and gas leasing and release it for public comment. That will be a second important opportunity for Canadians to express their views on the importance of protecting the Porcupine caribou from oil drilling, as well as other transboundary issues. The Interior Department may also undertake other pre-leasing activities, such as seismic exploration, for which there could be additional public involvement.

Top photo: The Porcupine caribou herd in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Peter Mather)

Bottom photo: Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society (photo provided)